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International Youth Exchange Student
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International Youth Exchange Student

1988 to many people may seem a long time ago. In fact, I suppose, it actually is. And yet in my musings and memories it can seem just a moment ago. Time can be like that.

1988 was the year I left home. Not just for college or to the next city for a job or to attend university. In 1988 I became an International Youth Exchange Student.

The decision to go was momentous. As a parent now I can only imagine the anxiety my parents must have felt when I asked if I could apply. This was pre the era of mobile phones, email, Skype or texting!

The organisation I traveled with was Rotary International.

To this day, Rotary has around 8000 students annually in 60 different countries. The aim of the program is to promote world understanding and peace.

On a personal level it offered much more to me in these ways:

  • spending one year living in another country (usually with three or four volunteer host families)
  • becoming part of those families and their community
  • being introduced to a new culture and lifestyle
  • traveling through Europe
  • making lifetime friends
  • learning another language
  • experiencing different foods
  • studying different subjects
  • learning a great deal about myself
  • gaining confidence and self-sufficiency

Rotary was a highly organised and responsible sponsor to young people such as myself. I believe it is much the same today. The selection process was extensive with both written application and interview selection at a local and district level.

Those of us selected were matched carefully with other countries based on the society of the host country and the maturity shown by the student. Japan, for example, offered a more structured approach for younger students while Scandinavian countries were more liberal and required a higher level of maturity.

I was matched with Iceland... but then, I had said at the interview that I'd like to see snow!

Rotary offered a brilliant support network. Not only were we under the caring umbrella of a local and host Rotary club we also had local counsellors to guide us on both sides of the world. We stayed with several volunteer families affiliated with the host club. A contact was also available at a district level should the system prove flawed and any student become in need of help.

As an 'out bounder' we went to two briefing weekends. We were, after all, ambassadors for our country and Rotary International. Not to mention we were only 18 and some of us not even that!

When we returned we enjoyed a delightful debriefing weekend where we met our peers again, exchanged experiences and prepared somewhat for 'the real world' ahead of us.

To say it changed my life would be to trivialise the momentous experience that 1988 was to me. To this day I have friends in Iceland. Actually it would be more correct to say I have family there. The wonder that is Facebook keeps us in touch.

I watch the news when volcanoes erupt, exchange greetings at festive times of the year and fret at the economic malady that has befallen this small island with the biggest heart. All these years on there is a place in my heart inexplicably tied to this wonderful land and it's people.

The world is indeed a better place due to Youth Exchange Programs. The effects are long lasting. 8000 students at a time. Countless lives continue to be touched, directly and indirectly, by international goodwill and understanding....year after year, after amazing year.

Street Talk

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